30th Anniversary of JFK: exclusive interview with Oliver Stone

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A blog by Henry Thompson, who interviewed Oliver Stone for our exclusive event.

The Festival's celebration of Oliver Stone's 1991 presidential biopic JFK is important for several reasons.

Firstly, JFK is simply a mesmerising film. The introductory montage of the Kennedy era and the assassination itself, accompanied by the drum roll from John Williams' music score is electrifying. Indeed, so good was that montage that some of Stone's mainstream media critics at the time feared that audiences might be duped; unable to tell where reconstruction ended and historical footage began. Stone's craft however was not in an act of deception but in articulating a substantial public challenge to the received wisdom about the assassination. That 'wisdom', most notably expressed in the pages of the Washington Post which described Stone's film as 'Dallas in Wonderland', retains a resonance for us all. It reminds us that the current predilection to describe news circulating on some social media sites as forming an emerging 'echo chamber' is not only disingenuous, but is also nothing new. In the UK mainstream media, for example, Guardian readers seldom turn to the Daily Mail for an alternative perspective and the reverse is equally true. (In the US, the same point can be made about Fox News and CNN(. In the aftermath of the assassination and again upon the arrival of Stone's film, the 'echo chamber' was not formed by the supposed fringe reportage of its day, but was composed of almost the entirety of the US print media. From the perspective of those media outlets, JFK was an unwelcome prod because Stone was not merely engaging in an intellectual debate about history or journalism. His 'alternative' assembly of the facts carried with it the implication that they - the mainstream media- had completely failed to ask the appropriate questions. It is perhaps unsurprising that they did not take that criticism particularly well.In the interview conducted specially for Harrogate Film Festival, Stone emphasises this when he notes that the media's failure to properly investigate the assassination meant that the biggest story in the second half of the twentieth century was missed; along with the second biggest story- the reasons behind the subsequent slide into the morass of the Vietnam War.

Whatever one concludes from the available evidence and myriad conflicting theories and explanations surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, Stone's film established a wider agenda that the director has taken as a guide in his later career. In his subsequent documentary films about Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and more recently, Vladimir Putin, Stone's objective has been not simply to eulogise, but to provide a perspective that we would not otherwise get from mainstream news outlets. He invites us all to leave our own echo chambers.Whilst he also remains personally committed to this broadening of perspective, his Festival interview revealed an underlying scepticism- perhaps pessimism- that the arrival of the Biden administration signals any national re-affirmation of the notions of truth and justice that have underscored Stone's films; notably JFK but also, memorably, Platoon, Wall Street, and more recently Snowden as well as the documentaries mentioned above. This was in marked contrast to the Oliver Stone I encountered a decade ago whilst researching for a book on his films*. At that time, despite Iraq and the drone kill lists from the Bush and Obama presidencies, Stone remained optimistic that history would take us all in a better direction.Despite his more recent evident scepticism, Stone has not yet given up on his call for a renewed examination of the JFK assassination. He is currently putting the final touches to a new documentary- JFK: Destiny Betrayed- which will be screened at Cannes in July.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Harrogate Film Festival's exclusive interview with Oliver Stone and also hope that you will take the opportunity to watch JFK either when it screens at the Festival when we can in person, watching the live-stream or wherever you can find it in a cinema later in the year, as it approaches its 30th birthday.

Henry Thompson

*The Cinema of Oliver Stone, co-authored with Ian Scott, published in 2016 by Manchester University Press.